What Will Steve Jobs' Legacy Be?

Disclaimer: I started writing this right after Steve Jobs passed away. My views have changed a little and I appreciate his contribution a little more, but my underlying sentiment has stayed the same. My feelings are marred by own prejudice against leaders who tend to act in their own self-interest over the interest of society. I haven't figured out yet if Jobs fits into that category, but I look forward to reading his biography...

With the passing of Steve Jobs and the soon-to-be released biography, I'm conflicted on how I feel on his contribution to society. I'm not sure if my confusion is about the man, or about how society reacted to his role in it. My thoughts are captured in this article titled, "They Mystery of Steve Jobs' Public Giving", where the author, Andrew Sorkin, says:

Before writing this column, I had reservations about even raising the issue given his ill health, and frankly, because of the enormous positive impact his products have had by improving the lives of millions of people through technology.

Regarding Gates and Buffett:

Before Bill Gates decided to focus on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to give away their entire fortune, he was often cast as a greedy monopolist. Similarly, critics of Mr. Buffett sometimes zinged arrows at him before he announced his plan to give away the bulk of his wealth, using the foundation of his friend Bill Gates to allocate the money. Even after he announced his philanthropic plans, Mr. Buffett was criticized for not giving his money away earlier or for not devoting more energy to giving it away himself.

Regarding Apple's charity work:

Mr. Jobs’s views on charity are unclear since he rarely talks about it. But in 1997, when Mr. Jobs returned to Apple, he closed the company’s philanthropic programs. At the time, he said he wanted to restore the company’s profitability. Despite the company’s $14 billion in profits last year and its $76 billion cash pile today, the giving programs have never been reinstated.


But over all, Apple has been one of “America’s least philanthropic companies,” as termed by Stanford Social Innovation Review, a magazine about the nonprofit sector, in 2007.

An article featured in Wired back in January of 2006 titled, "Jobs vs. Gates: Who's the Star":

Given Jobs' social detachment, I'm confused by the adulation he enjoys. Yes, he has great charisma and his presentations are good theater. But his absence from public discourse makes him a cipher. People project their values onto him, and he skates away from the responsibilities that come with great wealth and power.

On the evidence, he's nothing more than a greedy capitalist who's amassed an obscene fortune. It's shameful. In almost every way, Gates is much more deserving of Jobs' rock star exaltation.

In the same way, I admire Bono over Mick Jagger, and John Lennon over Elvis, because they spoke up about things bigger than their own celebrity.

It's time for Jobs to do the same.

Why doesn't society celebrate people like Harish Hande, co-founder of Solar Electric Light Company of India. From the MNN article on his company and how cheap solar is in India:

Hande is a graduate of India’s elite Indian Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts, and unlike many electrical engineers, he decided to focus on the socioeconomics of implementing technology rather than the technology itself.

Imagine if Steve Jobs had retired from Apple and gone on to revolutionize solar power in the third world!

In my opinion (at this point I guess I can't say it is humble), there comes a point in a person's life where they can do more for the world by focusing their energy on something that improves humankind for generations to come. Mr. Jobs was a visionary in his field and a great CEO. He made the lives of millions of people better by improving the way they interact with technology. In the past 3 years I have gone from being an Apple hold out, to owning 2 iPhones, 2 Macs, and an iPad.

I love what Steve Jobs was able to do at Apple and as a technology innovator, but did he change the world for the better, or merely improve how we interact with technology? Am I just being an arrogant jerk because my passion is sustainability and not computer hardware and software like Jobs? Is it fair to say that "I wish he had done more for sustainable causes" or is that just selfish of me? Should we demand more of our leaders that we worship? If you were one of the most powerful people in the world, how would you spend your time? Are there responsibilities that come with great wealth and power?

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I feel the exact same discomfort over his heightened post-humous fame and admiration. The amount of Facebook postings alone was unnerving--why was steve jobs' death the first real-world issue I'd seen a majority of people post about since the 2008 elections? Of course, I know that he impacted every one of those status-updaters, but with everything else going on that impacts society today, why did everybody choose to focus on this? But maybe it all goes back to our increasingly troubling ability to think only about our immediate world (i.e. "Jobs just died?? Wow, he basically created the things I interact with 60% of my waking life, I feel so affected, I better tweet about how I'll miss him!") versus long-term thinking (i.e. "Jobs just died?? Wow, that's crazy, he has really impacted technology, just look at the occupy wall street movement that's going on or the way tech is being used in third world countries...hmm, I'm going to go check the news." What I'm trying to say is that the focus for most people seems to be the relationship between their own life and steve jobs, and they arent willing to think outside the box. And maybe if steve (who could be charged with not thinking outside the box of technology), had given more philanthropically, it would have indirectly encouraged people to realize that there are more serious things going on in the world than the new iPhone. I know that whenever I think of Gates, I immediately think of his generous donations. However, was Jobs obliged? I don't think so; it is, of course, a free market. I think we've all chosen the Jobs-worshiping society for ourselves. We buy the iPad to make life easier, when that money could have been donated elsewhere. We need the newest smartphone, when part of that money could be donated, etc etc. I would like to criticize his greed (how I try to convince myself!), but I think that he's just mirroring society on a larger scale, and if he were to be held to more stringent philanthropic expectations, then all people who are above a certain wealth line should be asked to do the relative same, and then you get into ideas of communism and blah blah blah and I suppose that what it boils down to for me is that he doesn't deserve the idolization, and we as Americans need to wake up to the world outside of the iWorld. But hey, thank goodness I had my iPhone to type this up, right?
ckmapawatt's picture
That would have taken you 3 weeks to type on the iPhone. Good point about how I could have donated more vs. buying an iPad. Of course, there is a huge difference in having enough wealth to buy the latest electronics vs. having enough wealth to buy a small country....
What if Mr. Jobs figured out that he wasn't going to be able to do philanthropy well? Just giving piles of money away to anyone who phones you with a sad story isn't effective philanthropy - Bill and Melinda have talked about the difficulty of *solving* problems rather than simply throwing money at them (and have had several newsworthy failures despite all their care and research). If Steve Jobs had given away half his fortune five years ago - it would have done a great deal of good ... but AAPL is trading 5x higher now than then. Perhaps the much larger amount available now can be used even more effectively by his widow?
When Steve Jobs was recruiting John Sculley, who was President of Pepsico, to take over as CEO in 1983, reportedly his most persuasive argument was "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugar water or transform the way people learn and create.".
ckmapawatt's picture
Good points, but you dont have to give money away to be philanthropic. Someone of his genius could have surely revolutionized clean energy in the developing world, helped to use technology to eradicate malaria, etc...
ckmapawatt's picture
This is a topic I really struggle with. Do Apple's products really transform the way people learn and create (or the world - another version of the same story). Or do they just make our lives a bit simpler and more convenient? Again, I use Apple products and love them, but there are other products that do close to the same things. I can't get past the fact that a large portion of society seemed to worship Jobs for something more than someone who ran the best electronics company in the world.

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